With one win on Sunday, the Vancouver Canucks passed three teams to continue a dramatic December turnaround that improbably has the National Hockey League team on its longest winning streak in three years.
The Canucks easily handled the Calgary Flames 5-2, moving past the Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Arizona Coyotes – all Sunday losers – and into second place in the Pacific Division, just two points behind the Vegas Golden Knights.
From the start, the Canucks outplayed the Flames, who seemed unprepared for a living, breathing NHL opponent instead of the mummies they beat 5-1 Friday in Edmonton. Vancouver scored twice in the first seven minutes, led 3-0 until late in the second period and smartly managed its lead in the third to win for the second time in 24 hours.
Tyler Myers scored the first two goals – and had several chances to become the second defenceman in franchise history to net a hat trick – and Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, in his first start since suffering a concussion on Dec. 10, badly outperformed Flames goalie David Rittich.
The Canucks have won five straight since losing four out of five games in mid-December to fall four points adrift of the final wild-card playoff spot. The Flames, who were bumped down to that position on Sunday, are just 2-4-1 in their last seven games.
Calgary failed miserably to turn Friday’s gimme against the Oilers into a momentum-builder, but the Canucks continued to gather speed with one of their better road games this season. Here are a few takeaways from Sunday’s game.
FLAMING GOALIE DISCUSSION
Goalie Cam Talbot was excellent for the Flames and Rittich was not. Calgary’s first-half MVP was beaten three times on seven shots and didn’t look good on any of the Vancouver goals. Rittich was hooked for the first time since former coach Bill Peters gave him the third period off during an Oct. 28 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
We understand it’s heretical to some in Southern Alberta to talk about giving Talbot a bigger piece of pie, but Rittich’s 45 games last year were a career-high and so far this season only three NHL goalies have played more: Toronto’s Frederik Andersen, Columbus’s Joonas Korpisalo and Montreal’s Carey Price. And had he not sat on the bench for the final 49:08 on Sunday, Rittich would have been within a few minutes of the league lead.
Talbot allowed only one goal on 20 shots and sort of kept the Flames in it against their will. In his last four games over three weeks, Talbot has stopped 125 of 132 shots for a save percentage of .947. If the Flames want Rittich to be as good in the second half of the season as he was in the first, he probably needs to play less. Who knows, maybe the Flames will even score a few goals for Talbot.
The Canucks’ power play scored on its first two chances and now leads the NHL with 39 power-play goals in 40 games. In 82 games last season, Vancouver scored only 43 goals with the man-advantage. Their power-play rank has risen from 22nd (17.1 per cent) to fourth (26.4 per cent).
It continues to be a huge factor in Vancouver’s success and what was most impressive about Sunday’s execution, besides the timing of the two early goals, is that the second unit produced both.
The Canucks’ two units are so different – Elias Pettersson’s extraordinarily skilled and intricate PP1 versus Tanner Pearson’s simple and direct PP2 – that one penalty-killing game plan does not fit both. Coach Travis Green throwing out the second unit is like a pitcher throwing a changeup to a batter accustomed to fastballs.
Nobody will know for sure until he wakes up Monday, but Demko’s head sure looked fine after he took an early shot off the mask from Johnny Gaudreau – yes, Gaudreau did actually play – but completed his first game in three weeks with 23 saves.
One of the two goals that beat him, by Noah Hanifin at 19:02 of the third period, was so deep into garbage time as to be meaningless except to Demko’s personal stats.
It was impossible for Green to rest starter Jacob Markstrom in the nine games Demko missed, and it will be much easier for the Canucks coach to give Markstrom periodic resets if the backup continues to win. Demko is 8-4-1 this season.
He felt good enough on Sunday to attempt to head the puck on a high shot that was obviously going to miss the net. Demko’s neurologist may not approve, but it sure looked like a sign of confidence from a game playing without the worry of another concussion.
NOT BEST, BUT BOESER
With his assist on Myers’s second goal, a groaner that skipped through Rittich’s pads at 6:40 of the first, Brock Boeser capped his December with 14 points in 13 games. The winger is on a five-game points streak, and was blanked in just two of the 13 games this month.
But talk about who has been driving the Canucks and you will mention Markstrom and Pettersson, Miller, rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes, Jake Virtanen’s hot streak and the return of veteran defenceman Alex Edler. Sometime after that, people will get around to Boeser.
Partly because he had only three goals in December, maybe because his mistakes with the puck when forcing plays can be exasperating, or simply because he has been eclipsed on the excitement-meter by Pettersson and Hughes, Boeser is almost becoming underrated.
It’s true he may not be one of the Canucks’ top three or four players, but Boeser’s impact is still formidable.
BAD TKACHUK, BAD
Matthew Tkachuk needs to play on the edge to be effective and the Flames needed some edginess to their game after a meek start that had Calgary behind 2-0 in the first seven minutes. We get it.
But Tkachuk’s pointless penalty at 10:14 of the opening period was just plain stupid, and helped Vancouver go up 3-0 38 seconds later when Virtanen’s centring pass went in of Calgary defenceman Travis Hamonic.
With winger J.T. Miller threatening a line change, Tkachuk cross-checked the Canuck a couple of seconds after he flipped the puck over the Calgary blue line with no Vancouver players on the attack. Even if Tkachuk gets away with his brain cramp, that kind of play isn’t going to inspire anyone except the referees. Two goals down, the Flames were one shot away from being back in the game with two-and-a-half periods to go. Down 3-0, it looked over before the 11-minute mark.